The Organ in Christ's Chapel of Alleyn's College of God's Gift at Dulwich by William McVicker

The existing organ in Christ's Chapel of Alleyn's College of God's Gift at Dulwich was first constructed in 1760 by George England. There were three organ-builders in the England dynasty: George ('Old England'), John, and John's son, George Pike. There is precious little organ-building work by George England which has survived unaltered and the original specification of the Chapel organ can be found in the notebooks of the Reverend John Hanson Sperling (1825-1894) which are now held at the British Organ Archive in Birmingham. Although there are many textual references to the organ in the Chapel, Sperling's entry (dating some time between 1850 and 1880) is the earliest reliable source of information about the instrument which was slightly altered in 1880 by Thomas Christopher Lewis of Brixton. Lewis was not an admirer of a certain type of organ sound - namely 'mixture' stops containing third-sounding or 'tierce' ranks of pipes. He diligently removed these sounds, but fortunately did not destroy all of the pipework, preferring to recast the composition of some of the stops, retaining some of the material - albeit relocated within the instrument and not speaking at the pitch that it once did. Lewis was one of the finest nineteenth-century British organ builders and one may surmise from the limited extent of his changes that perhaps he thought highly of the quality of England's work. Until 1880 the organ was tuned to an unequal temperament when Lewis retuned it to what is now known as equal temperament. Until that time there was no Pedal organ (played by the feet) and so Lewis added a new Bourdon stop for this purpose. It is important to understand that, despite the changes made by Lewis, until 1908 the organ remained largely as George England had constructed it in 1760.

The history of English organ building is one in which every generation seems to have taken the opportunity to add to and update

The history of English organ building is one in which every generation seems to have taken the opportunity to add to and update an instrument - perhaps in the way that each generation alters some cosmetic or structural aspect of a house. Thus it was that in 1908 the organ's mechanical action was converted to the then-fashionable pneumatic system and the organ was much altered by the firm of Norman & Beard. Until this time the instrument would have been hand blown; the mechanism was superceded and an electric fan located in the tower. Fortunately this work retained some of England's pipework (suffering significant alteration), but, sadly, the organ's eighteenth-century mechanism, winding and soundboards were lost. Further alterations were undertaken in 1948 by Arthur Coombs, the local grocer, and in 1969 the instrument was given a strong neo-baroque identity, the work being carried out by Mander Organ Builders who fitted the organ with an electro-pneumatic action to manuals and pedals.

Although the time had not come to place the organ on the agenda for a major overhaul, an unfortunate heating accident over the Christmas period in 1999-2000 caused significant and lasting damage to the instrument and this has considerably foreshortened its life. The organ has always been kept in first-class condition because of its heavy usage in the round of services both for the congregation and for the schools - not to mention weddings, funerals and concerts. Approximately one third of the instrument has now been inoperative for over three years and it is only through the excellent and musical playing of the Chapel organist, Marilyn Harper, that its shortcomings are not evident.

The organ has deteriorated to the extent that the only proper course of action is to take it back to basics and reconstruct it, rather than to attempt to undertake remedial work. The majority of the organ's pipes, together with its casework, date from 1760. The survival of so much early pipework gives this organ a national importance - the instrument has both the earliest surviving Gothic Revival organ case and Cornet stop in the United Kingdom. Coincidentally the library at Dulwich College contains the music manuscripts of one-time organist of the Chapel, John Reading (1686-1764), and these volumes represent an important primary source of English Cornet voluntaries. After due consultation it is believed that the correct course of action is to recover the organ's historic quality which is in keeping with the architectural surroundings of the Chapel and the type of worship offered there. Discussions on behalf of the Dulwich Estate took place with the Diocesan Organ Advisers Dr Harry Bramma (former Director of the Royal School of Church Music) and Barrie Clark (formerly an architect with English Heritage). Both gentlemen took the view that the right course of action was to restore rather than develop the instrument. The consultant for the project is Dr William McVicker.

The opportunity therefore presents itself to undertake a restoration project of a type that was not achieved in 1969 when the organ was taken on another journey in its history. The instrument was cleaned and put back into good order after the recent restorative work to the Chapel interior in the late 1990s and so an insurance claim for the damage to the organ is in progress.

The users of the organ were consulted, including the Chapel's Director of Music, Dulwich College's Choral Foundation, and directors of music groups from Alleyn's School and James Allen's Girls' School. Other users include the parish choir of St Barnabas's Church and organ students and their teachers from the Foundation schools together with visitors who use the chapel for occasional concerts.

The requirements of these user groups has been carefully discussed and assessed. An Organ Committee visited instruments by Mander Organs, Goetze & Gwynn, William Drake Organ Builders and Peter Collins Ltd. After a formal tender process William Drake, of Buckfastleigh in Devon, was appointed to undertake the work, subject to Faculty approval.

By way of summary, the proposed works to the organ includes new soundboards, a new console with reversed-colour keyboards, a new mechanical action suitable for the new pipework which will be designed and scaled to have an eighteenth-century character to match the restored 1760 England pipes; other new elements include the Swell box and wind system; the Gothic Revival casework will be restored, together with the largest of the fa├žade pipes, which have not spoken since 1908.

The unattractive 1969 pipework, which stands to the right-hand side of the elegant organ case, is to be removed, along with the unsightly 1908 Swell box which protrudes from the top of the instrument. Both of these visual changes will improve the aesthetic of the west gallery and the Chapel's architectural sightlines. Certain compromises to a strict restoration have been agreed with the users: the organ will be tuned to modern concert pitch to enable the schools to combine organ and instruments, and the organ will have a set of pedals (which it did not have in 1760) which will allow the performance of later repertoire. The stop changes will be effected by mechanical combination pedals.

The scheme was placed before the Parochial Church Council of St Barnabas' Church, Dulwich and appropriate approval for proposed works was obtained in January 2004. Faculty approval is being sought from the Diocese of Southwark. The organ is to be constructed during 2006 and the project will be paid for principally by the Dulwich Estate, although additional funding may come from insurance recovery, any successful grant applications, and fund-raising activities undertaken by members of the congregation. The project is enormously exciting and we look forward to a time when this instrument speaks once more with its elegant eighteenth-century voice restored.

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